Friday, January 13, 2006

New Wok: The Dramatic Conclusion

Well, the continuing story of the wok has come to its shocking conclusion.

After having ordered the new wok (Episode 1) and after having waited in a spirit of great anticipation (Episode 2), the new wok finally arrived (Episode 3).

I pulled it from the box. There she was. In my arms at last. Gorgeous, shiny, flat-bottomed, newly-pressed, carbon-steel. A new, better wok to replace the old, lacking one. Or, at least, so I thought.

I washed my new baby with an SOS pad to remove the slick greasy oil, dried it with paper towels and then began the process of seasoning it, following the directions laid out in my book The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young to the letter:

I heated the wok over high heat while cutting up the Chinese chives we'd bought at Ranch 99 in anticipation of seasoning our new wok. When the wok seemed hot enough I swirled in a bit of oil, let it get good and hot and then threw in the chives.

I knew right away something was wrong. Grace Young describes exactly what a properly heated wok should sound like. Ingredients should "sing" when they hit the pan. This wasn't singing. Not like Renee Fleming. More like Sinead O'Connor on her last few albums doing that wierd half-whisper, half-talking thing. It simply wasn't getting nearly hot enough.

I looked closely at the pan and noticed a slight wobble when I stirred it. I bent down to take a closer look and could see that the bottom of the pan wasn't exactly flat. Only a small bit of the wok was actually coming into contact with the heating element. The bottom looked flat enough, but there was a small but crucial, fatal curve there.

I soon emailed Tane Chan of the Wok Shop, explaining the problem, and she wrote back (totally nice and professional as always) that I could return the new wok to the shop if I wasn't satisfied. The new carbon-steel wok I'd ordered should be flat on the bottom, she said, but many people who have ceramic stove tops prefer a cast-iron wok which keeps better contact with the heating element.

Hey, I thought, a cast-iron wok. That's what I have already. My old wok.

It finally dawned on me that it wasn't the old wok that was the problem. It was ME. I hadn't been treating it right.

A little back story: You see, when we first got the old wok, Jeff insisted on seasoning it with his own original method which he discovered (cough, cough) on the internet. This involved pouring salt into it and leaving it on a hot barbecue grill for several hours.

In the end, food stuck to it like there was no tomorrow. Stir-frying involved more scraping than stirring. A scrape-fry. It remained a sore spot in our cooking lives ever since.

So of course we thought a new wok would be the answer. Hoo-boy, were we ever wrong.

When Jeff got home from work, we took another look at the old wok. We cleaned her up real good. Then seasoned her right according to Breath of a Wok's directions for an iron wok, coating her good with saturated oil and letting her sit in a hot oven. We even did it twice just to be sure.

That night, Jeff cut up some Napa cabbage and sliced some tofu and minced some ginger and garlic. I made a sauce and heated the old wok over highest heat for a long time.

And then came the moment of truth. We swirled a bit of oil into the old wok. Then, cautiously, holding or breath, we threw in the minced ginger and garlic.

Success! They positively floated on top of the hot wok, not sticking in the least. When we threw in the Napa cabbage, that sweet baby sang like Maria Callas on opening night of Traviata at La Scala.

Happiness at last... and it had been sitting in our own kitchen cabinet the whole time!

The whole wok story is so dramatic, so epic, so moving and filled with life's little ironies, you can easily imagine the whole wok story as a classic movie, can't you? I know I can. Joan Crawford stars as the new wok, a manipulative, gold-digging shop-girl. Norma Shearer is the old wok, the long-suffering, faithful wife.

Or maybe girl-next-door Judy Garland as the old wok, sweater-girl-deb-seductress Lana Turner as the new wok. Which, I suppose, would make me Mickey Rooney (shudder).

Anyway, the new wok is back in the box and is being shipped back to San Francisco. (Back to the gutter with you, manipulative, gold-digging wok.)

I still feel a little bit of lingering guilt for how I treated the old wok....

Old wok, I don't deserve you. I've done nothing to earn your love again. But if you'll have me, I'll work hard to build up trust between us. I won't let Jeff pour salt in you and leave you on a barbecue grill for three hours. I won't consider new woks anymore. I won't even go near the wok section at Ranch 99 ever again. If you can forgive me, old wok, if you can accept me again--and I know you have no reason to--but if you can find that tiny piece of forgiveness in that big, wonderful heart of yours, I know we can fix the old problems, we can make it right. We'll make beautiful stir-fry's together again.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Kamikaze Girls: DVD Review

Kamikaze Girls (2004) tells the story of an unlikely friendship. Momoko is a Japanese girl fascinated with 18th Century Rococo French culture. Her outlandish, lacey baby-doll outfits make her a misfit in her small, isolated cabbage-growing town of Shimotsuma, where everyone shops at Jusco (the Japanese equivalent of Wal-Mart) for fantastic bargains on Polo shirts and Versace knock-offs. She develops an unexpected friendship with Ichigo, a biker girl on the total opposite end of the spectrum of extreme Japanese fashions, a "Yanki" given to spitting and kamikaze jackets and streetfights and shaved, painted-on eyebrows.

The film is told in the most hyper, manic, insanely detailed, kinetic style. It will suddenly slip into cartoon mode or silent, grainy 16mm footage. Characters unexpectedly float or fly or walk through a bucolic fantasy of 18th century French countryside. Momoko speaks to the audience or rewinds a scene to give some backstory. Think Trainspotting. Or rather think Trainspotting if it kicked heroin, took the red-eye from Edinburgh to Tokyo, rode the Shinkansen bullet train to an isolated rural Japanese village where it sat in a cabbage field and did mescaline and crystal meth crumbled into a tumbler of ether with a float of Percocet jimmies. Watch the original Japanese trailer and you'll get the idea.

It's a wonderful, inventive little movie about the way individualism can often lead to isolation, and about how two people, even polar opposites, can find unexpected solace in an intense and sudden friendship. And though the movie is basically sweet at heart, it's never overly gentle on our heroes: the movie exposes the way in which even the most delicate, sweet, girlish demeanor often covers brutish and selfish impulses, and a tough exterior often covers for a weak and overly sensitive soul.

I'm not familiar enough with Japanese culture to say to what extent the film may have been manipulating or exploiting youth culture: maybe kids in Japan had a more cyncial attitude towards the film. (I might, had the film been American, have felt the same.) But from the outside, it all seems original, genuine and fun. Momoko and Ichigo are real, honest characters, and we're genuinely concerned for them and interested in what happens to them.

I think the English title "Kamikaze Girls" is rated X for Xtra retarded. Maybe the more straightforward Japanese title A Shimotsuma Story just wasn't catchy enough?

I suggest, from the DVD menu, choosing to watch the film in "Sideways Mode." This does not show the film sideways as the name might suggest, but instead, in Sideways Mode, a little cabbage (don't ask) appears on the screen from time to time. Select it with your remote and you'll have the Japanese pop-culture and extreme fashion jokes--Yanki, Lolita, Jusco, Yakuza, Pachinko, or whatever--explained to you. The DVD also has way cute interviews with the two stars as an extra.

On the whole, very sweet, fresh, original, wonderfully strange and funny.

FilmStocker Rating: A

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Southwestern Poblano Peppers Stuffed with Chipotle Pinto Beans and Wheat Berries over Tomatillo Hot Sauce: Recipe

This recipe is a bit long. The name of the dish is long, and the recipe itself is long. But don't let that frighten you off. It's pretty simple and straightforward: it just requires a lot of description to lay out all the steps. I've offered a recipe synopsis so you can get a sense of what's involved.

Again, do not be frightened. This is an easy recipe. It takes a long time, but most of that is just letting things simmer on the stove. Have a good movie (like Kamikaze Girls) to watch while you're making it! It's worth it!

Recipe Synopsis: Make the wheat berries. Make the beans. Stir them together with cheese. Stuff into blanched poblano peppers. Bake. Serve with tomatillo sauce.

8 poblano peppers
1/2 cup wheat berries (or rye-, kamut-, spelt-, berries etc)
1 cup pinto beans

olive oil
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon coriander
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

1 cup grated mild cheese, such as Monterey Jack or Cheddar
3 tablespoons chipotle peppers in adobe sauce (available in most Mexican markets and often in the Mexican section of grocery stores)
salt and pepper

8 ounces tomatillos (small green tomatoes with papery husks. Again, available at Mexican markets and in some grocery stores)
1/2 small white onion
5 sprigs fresh cilantro
1 green chili pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. If you don't have a pressure cooker, the night before (or at least 8 hours before) you begin this recipe, soak the wheat berries and pinto beans separately in water to cover.

2. Drain and rinse the wheat berries.

3. Put them in a pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft, 1 to 2 hours.

4. Alternately, put unsoaked wheat berries in the pressure cooker with 1 1/2 cups water. bring to high pressure and cook for 50 minutes.

5. Drain the cooked wheat berries and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

6. Drain and rinse the soaked pinto beans.

7. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot and add the onions, garlic, celery, and carrot. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until vegetables start to soften.

8. Throw in the hot pepper, ground cumin and coriander, and the fresh parsley. Stir and cook for another minute.

9. Add the pinto beans and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer until soft, 1 to 2 hours.

10. Alternately, for a pressure cooker, cook the vegetables and spices as directed above, then add the beans and water. Bring to full pressure and cook for 30 minutes or until beans are soft.

11. Drain the pintos if they've got a lot of water. Add the beans to the wheat berries. Add salt (about 1 1/2 teaspoons or to taste) some freshly ground pepper and the cheese. Add the chipotles in adobe sauce, being sure to break up any large peppers with a fork or a knife! Stir well and taste for seasoning.

12. Cut off the tops of the poblanos and remove the seeds and cratilage. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the poblanos in it for five minutes.

13. Drain the poblanos and rinse them thoroughly in cold water to stop them from cooking. Pat them dry and stand them upside down (as best you can) to let any remaining water drain out.

14. Stuff the peppers, place them in an oiled baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

15. While the peppers are baking, make your tomatillo sauce.

16. Peel the husks away from your tomatillos. Put them in a pot of water to cover and bring them to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the tomatillos have turned a pale goldish-green.

17. Drain. Put the tomatillos in a blender or food processor with the cilantro, white onion, green chile and salt. Blend until you have a smooth sauce. Put the sauce in the fridge until the peppers are ready.

18. When the peppers are done, spoon a bit of the tomatillo sauce onto an empty plate. Place a stuffed pepper onto the sauce then top with a dollop of sour cream (or yogurt) and sprinkle with freshly minced cilantro.

19. Serve and enjoy!

Breaking News: Wok Arrives

After what seemed like an interminable wait (ok, a week) we went down to check our mail in the lobby and found the miraculous slip of yellow paper in our mailbox, informing us our package had arrived. With trembling hands and racing hearts we went to the front desk where the lobby manager handed us the box which contained our wok!

I'm too excited to post much more, so I'll just leave you with Ms. Tane Chan of the Wok Shop's totally awesome, totally nice, totally informative email that I got a few days ago. It helped me get through the long and difficult wait (ok, a week).

I'm off to season my beautiful baby! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! My wok has arrived! I chortle in my joy!

Dear Andrew,
Thank you so much for your order through It was shipped 1.3, via UPS tracking No. XXXXXXXXX. Please allow at least 6 working days to GA. Hope all is received in good order.

The wok is carbon steel and has to be seasoned to prevent it from rusting. The seasoning process is relatively easy to do. Just wash and dry your wok thoroughly. Coat lightly, interior and exterior with cooking oil. Bake in hot oven, 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Place in oven upside down. Remove from oven, let cool to touch and scour wok with an abrasive pad. Scour the "seasoning" or patina you want the wok back to its original finish. Wash, dry, coat and bake again...same process. Do this 4 times. After the 4th baking, you will not be able to scour the seasoning away...and that is the result you want. The wok is seasoned.

The more you use the wok, the better and blacker it gets., You cannot ruin the wok. If you neglect it and it should get rusty, not to worry, Just scour away the rust and season again. A wok should last almost a lifetime. A wok also gets better with age...the older the better.

If you use a gas stove, you can try the salt method; just wash wok thoroughly and dry. Pour l cup of table salt into wok and with a high flame, stir salt constantly 20 minutes to 1/2 hour. Wipe wok clean and oil lightly with cooking oil. Voila! a seasoned wok with no muss no fuss.

You can use your wok to not only stir fry, but deep fat fry, steam, braise, stew, boil, saute, smoke and pop popcorn. A wok just gets better and blacker with use. Your wok will develop a nice patina and will get to a point where it will be almost non-stick.

After the wok has been seasoned, it would be a good idea to preheat the wok, add a little bit of cooking oil(1 tsp) and pre heat the oil; then add some pungent veggies. e. g.sliced onions, green onions, ginger, garlic and stir fry in the wok until burned....then toss out the veggies. Your seasoned wok will be ready and the wok will be so nice! [You said it, Tane!]

Happy wokking!

Thank you.

Ms. Tane Chan

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Random Garfield Comic Generator

At last! A site that randomly picks three panels from years and years of Garfield cartoons to make odd, non-sensical, surreal comics.

Who designed this site and why? Better not to worry about it, I suppose. Just enjoy!

The Lady and the Duke: DVD Review

The Lady and the Duke (2001) tells the story of Grace Elliot, a wealthy Scotswoman who made France her second home during the 18th century and was subsequently caught up in the events of the French revolution.

Fans of sweeping historic epics will find a lot to admire here, but the film has its share of disappointments, too.

Movie-goers--who are used to (and enjoy) more convincing and literal special effects--will probably find Rohmer's use of painted sets distracting. I was torn: they have an appropriate, old-fashioned grandeur--like huge painted backdrops for an opera--but the characters also seem to pop out of them and stumble around in them in a cartoon-like, unintentionally humorous way. Maybe they looked better on the big screen.

The film also has trouble finding a balance between drawing room drama (director Eric Rohmer's usual territory) and epic, historic spectacle. Some of the most dramatic moments are brushed over and less interesting ones are dwelt on. I wasn't that interested in the character of "the Duke," Grace's former lover who pops into the story a little too often in order to drink port and talk portentiously and at length about the latest events in the revolution.

And I especially liked the sub-plot in which Grace hides a nobleman, a former rival, from patrols to save him from the guillotine. It's a great, tense dramatization of former allegiances and sympathies thrown into the air by huge cataclysmic events: the story even hinted at the possibility of a budding passion between them. It was a disappontment then, that one of the most compelling threads of the story for me was resolved by a snippet of text title flashed on screen: "He later made it to England safely."

The film was roundly criticized in France for being reactionary and conservative, even royalist, in its sympathies. This is unlikely to bother an American audience which has less at stake in sympathizing, for the purposes of a film, with the French aristocracy. Still, one may begin to wonder... Why did he have to make the aristocracy and their cake so attractive and the revolting peasants so...revolting?

All in all, a good, but less than masterful, historic epic from a master of the modern drawing room.

FilmStocker Rating: B-

Monday, January 09, 2006

Hot Chocolate Recipe

Here's an attractive young couple doing their self-penned dance "The Hot Chocolate" to the 1976 hit You Sexy Thing.

You'll feel like doing the same when you take your first sip of this hot chocolate. This recipe will kind of take you back to the hot chocolate you had when you were a kid, but--rich, sophisticated, and not too sweet--this is definitely hot chocolate for grown-ups.

It's so rich I like to serve it in small doses, about half a cup per person is plenty. It's all vegetarian: vegans can substitute soy milk for the whole milk.

Hot Chocolate (Serves 2 sexy things)

1 cup whole milk, half-and-half or soy milk
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (I like to use Ghirardelli 60% Cocoa Bittersweet Choc. Chips but any equivalent substitute in bittersweet chocolate is fine)

1. Heat milk in a saucepan over low to medium low heat.

2. Dump in the chocolate chips and stir gently with a whisk until completely dissolved.

3. Pour into two small tea cups.

4. Top with the tiniest sprinkle of ground cinnamon, grated chocolate, whipped cream and'or marshmallow fluff (Marshmallows often have animal-derived gelatin, but the fluff in jars such as Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Creme are totally vegetarian, though they do contain egg whites).

5. For an extra disco-style treat add a shot of Bailey's Irish Cream, Amaretto or Godiva Chocolate Liqueur.

5. Drink and sing with me ... I believe in miracles. Where did you come from? You sexy thing.
Click here to groove along.

Tickle Me, My Dark Lord Elmo

On the heels of news reports from Dallas that Elmo's interactive book "Potty Time with Elmo" was asking toddlers not "Who wants to try to go potty?" but "Who wants to die?"..., on top of it, come reports that some of the Shout! Dancing Elmo dolls sing "beat up Elmo" and "shoot his foot out." Listen at the link and decide for yourself.

What, I ask you, is going on? Is this the fulfillment of the Seventh Sign of the apocalypse as predicted in the Book of Revelations?

And behold: a red beast shall appear among the children, asking "Who amongst thee desireth to die? And who amongst thee shall challenge me with thy fist or thy weapon?"

Well, if that's not in the Book of Revelations, it should be. I used to think Elmo was kind of cute, but he scares me now.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Weekend Monkey News Update

Finally: a scientific explanation for the fame of Paris Hilton.

Scientists at the Duke University Medical Center recently published the results of an experiment in which they offered adult male rhesus macaque monkeys a choice: their favorite drink, in this case, Juicy Juice brand cherry drink, or the opportunity to look at images of the dominant, "celebrity" monkey of their pack.

Despite their thirst, they chose to look at the pictures. The impulse to look at these "celebrity" monkeys was so strong, it overrode their thirst.

It appears fascination with celebrity may be related to very strong, primal impulses that involve group heirarchies, status, food, power and sexual magnetism.

Personally, I'd give up my Juicy Juice just to watch cute monkeys at play, but that's another story.